Anyone who works in any type of school knows that December is awash with glitter, cotton wool and hyperactivity. The best we can do is try to contain it to a week, but the anticipation just seems to leak out of children and into everything they touch. And, of course, that’s exactly how it should be! So most of us give in from the magic date of December 1st, when the decorations are allowed to go up and we hit carols and silly hats in a big way.
Except in a Special Measures school. Maybe.
We are due an Ofsted inspection in the spring term. Unlike a lot of schools, we know it’s definitely coming then. It’s the inspection that we hope will take us out of special measures and back into a place where we can breathe.
Taking on the headship of a school that is in Special Measures gets a funny response from colleagues. They don’t know whether to congratulate you or laugh at you, so they do both. I was told it was a poisoned chalice; another colleague said it would end my career. Others patted me on the back and bolstered me up with comments such as, “if anyone can, it’s YOU!” which just made the professional paranoia worse.
I joined the school a year ago, seven months after it went into special measures. I remember a member of the admin team asking me if I would see a parent at the beginning of the day. The parent, she said, was going to wait until he could see me. He said he was going to wait as long as it took. He said he wasn’t afraid to go to the local paper if I didn’t see him; he had done it before, and he would do it again. It was September, but the parent wanted to know if I was going to ‘do’ Christmas. One of the previous heads had cancelled Christmas, apparently, and the parent had indeed gone to the local paper. The story went national. The school was called ‘The Scrooge Academy’ and ‘The Academy that Cancelled Christmas’. Comments from the public responding to the story online ranged from ‘If the children are that bad, don’t blame them, the blame lays firmly with the so-called teachers’ to my personal favourite, ‘This is all Gove’s fault’!
It turned out that Christmas hadn’t been cancelled. There were loads of festivities going on: a theatre visit; a turkey dinner; carols round the tree. There just wasn’t going to be a nativity. A spokesman from the school said that they could not prioritise weeks of rehearsals when they needed to prioritise raising standards in English and maths. I remember reading this non-story several years ago and shaking my head at the sensationalised headlines, bemused at the position the school had found itself in. Like all news though, this soon became old news and I hadn’t given it a second thought until the parent stood in front of me wanting to know what stance I was going to take on Christmas. Of course, I reassured them that Christmas would not be cancelled under my leadership, and I meant it. Until this November.
I lead a special measures school that is going to be inspected in the spring term. After a year of great turbulence, including a restructure, new assessment processes, a brand new curriculum, a significant turnover of staff and a new behaviour system, we are due the inspection which we are hoping will grade us as ‘good’.
The problem with ‘good’ is that it goes hand in hand with ‘consistency’ and ‘embedded’. Neither of these go well with ‘turnover’ and ‘restructure’. Historical low attainment means that outcomes for children cannot be good unless we can show rapid gain and consistently strong progress. To do that, we need work in books. We need the quantity and quality of our pupils’ work to show that our good teaching is leading to rapidly improving outcomes. In order to do this, we need to keep our eye on the ball and our foot on the pedal and not be distracted by any fad or fancy that might come our way. Let’s keep on keeping on! we cry, we’re on the right track, doing all of the right things in the right order with the right people – that’s what our monitoring visits are telling us so we just need to keep going! But all of a sudden it’s November and the Christmas conundrum raises its head. How much Christmas can we do without taking ourselves off track? How much time can we devote to singing and cutting and sticking when we need to think about fronted adverbials and phonic recall?
What we were wrestling with wasn’t really about whether we should prioritise a nativity over a noun phrase. It was, if push comes to shove, are we willing to forfeit a possible ‘good’ judgement for an ‘RI’ judgement so that our children could do Christmas properly?
To be honest, if you call yourself a moral leader it doesn’t take long to made a decision like this. Of course we chose Christmas. Our school sits in one of the most deprived areas in the country and we are a haven for most of our children and many of our families. The magic of Christmas is hard to create in a home that needs to prioritise food over presents; we feel it’s our duty to provide the magic and to teach our pupils how to make magic for each other.
After a prolonged period of antisocial behaviour and criminal activity in our local community, the pastoral team went out on to the streets this week with some of our children and a bag full of presents. For the first time our children learned what it felt it like to give somebody a gift in an act of random kindness. One of my youngest pupils told me that the man who took her gift had tears in his eyes as he told her that he hadn’t been given a present in years. How did it feel, I asked her, to know you made somebody feel this way? She thought for a second and told me, ‘it was like my heartbeat went like this’ and she gave a sharp intake of breath. That one moment was a defining one for me.
I know that Ofsted does not expect us to prioritise maths and English over a broad and balanced curriculum. I know it does not ask us to cancel Christmas in order to make sure progress doesn’t slow. I know this, and yet I nearly gave into The Fear. What I also know is that I am the leader of a great school, where staff go over and above to make sure our children are safe, loved and educated. I don’t know what Ofsted judgment this all equates to: I’ll find out soon.
Katie McGuire is the Principal of Oasis Academy Nunsthorpe, a primary school in Grimsby.